Superhero films are about to get a jolt of originality, starting with a new Joker film, of all things.
Last week, Deadline reported that Martin Scorsese was producing a Joker origin film for Warner Brothers, to be directed by The Hangover's Todd Phillips. While Jared Leto hasn't been let go, there will be a different actor in the role, separate from DC's Justice League and Suicide Squad cinematic universe—which has underwhelmed critics and audiences compared to the Marvelverse films. It will also be the first in a series of films produced by Warner Brothers featuring DC comics characters outside their canonical universe.
And that's exciting, not only for comic book fans who want to see alternate versions of their favorite heroes but also for casual viewers. By splintering off from the mainline movies, these projects might finally have a little room to breathe and stand on their own merits rather than as incomplete parts of a 'world-building' puzzle.
The move by Warner Brothers to make stand-alone side movies suggests that they've finally given up trying to wrap everything up in a neat bow and are instead letting these titles be messy by going off-brand; it's about time.
As rumors and speculation start to surround the casting of the new Joker, I'm much more interested in the other one-off films we might look forward to.
There's a long history of superhero names to play with here. The big three obviously stand out: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who have each already had their canonical debuts in the lead-up to this year's Justice League.
With the enormous success of Wonder Woman this summer, it seems audiences would probably shell out good money to see the Amazon princess kick more ass than the current sequel schedule can allow. New directors and actors could be brought in to offer fresh, diverse takes on the heroine. For my money, Laverne Cox would be perfect in the role, but ex-MMA fighter Gina Carano is a close second.
Exploring the politics on the Amazon paradise island of Themyscira would be great, especially if Wonder Woman returned with technology or news of the outside world. She was also a lot of fun working in disguise in the latest film, so maybe a present-day spy film would be in order. If Steven Soderbergh stays out of retirement, maybe he could go back to the aesthetic of his criminally underrated Haywire.
Superman's tough. He's kind of boring with his near-invincibility. As an outsider who adopts and protects the American Way, he's more than ready for someone to shake up the corn-fed rural white kid formula—is Aladdin's new hot Jafar, Marwan Kenzari, available? Or why not Jon Hamm as an aging Superman suffering through the fact that he has to outlive everyone he loves? Those Kryptonian genes make him age slower than us, which has all kinds of potential, narratively.
(I have to throw in a shout-out to Brandon Routh, who really ought to be brought back for another outing in the red and blue tights—he was easily the best Superman we've ever had in Superman Returns. don't @ me. Maybe there's an alternative future film in which movie fans recognize Routh's greatness.)
A live-action version of the animated Batman Beyond would be fun, giving us a younger caped crusader, fighting crime in a cyberpunk future. Interesting directors lacking the willingness to sign onto multi-picture franchises could dip their toes in for one movie and walk away. Now that Sense8 has been canceled, maybe the Wachowski's are free to direct. Kathryn Bigelow proved she could handle cyberpunk better than anyone with 1995's Strange Days.
If Warner Brothers wants more villain titles or to zero in on some of DC's lower profile or lesser-known heroes, there's also a huge stable of characters there.
Superman villain Lex Luthor would be a goldmine. Imagine Paul Thomas Anderson taking on the power-hungry billionaire. His There Will Be Blood and The Master would make ideal blueprints for a standalone feature about the rise and fall of the megalomaniacal businessman.
Renee Montoya is a cop who took on the mantle of the Question in 2007 to become a private eye—a great counterpart to Marvel's "street-level" Defenders. She would be DC's first queer and Latinx hero, which would be a welcome change. She was also once romantically involved with Batwoman, one of DC's best and most underused heroes (who could easily headline her own movie too.)
Montoya and Batwoman are probably too interesting to waste on a carefully planned shared universe like the Justice League. Instead, they'd each be great leads in an auteur-driven project. Montoya had to deal with doing her job at the Gotham PD in Gotham Central, solving cases while Batman inevitably interfered and/or took credit. That would be a solid way to challenge some of the politics of the genre while turning an eye to police corruption and ineptitude too. And her supernatural path towards becoming the Question could be a compelling rival to Marvel's Jessica Jones.
Snowpiercer and Okja director Bong Joon-ho would be a fitting choice to balance the dark, criminal underworld with a lighter, comic book tone. Or to tackle a love story between the two tortured heroes.
Then there's Buddy Baker, or Animal Man, who borrows the powers of the animals around him. While that's a goofy premise at first glance, in the comics, author Jeff Lemire centered the story on Buddy's family life and his attempts to be a good husband and father while cultivating his own expanding celebrity. In the 80s, Grant Morrison experimented with Buddy developing self-awareness so strong he began to understand his own fictional nature—think Deadpool but with existential depth rather than fourth wall-breaking anarchic silliness.
The self-awareness of the character mixed with a commentary on the celebrity of a superhero could be a great way to unpack the meanings we attribute to public personas while taking superheroes into new and compelling directions.
I'd hand the off-kilter, indie-leaning Animal Man to Swiss Army Man's Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan for something suitably WTF.
Animal Man has also teamed up with Swamp Thing in recent years, another hero (or antihero) that might merit a reboot after the 1980s' lukewarm attempts at a film franchise. With climate change on our collective minds, a man with literal roots in a sentient natural world could be timely and compelling.
In last year's Arrival, Denis Villeneuve hit some tonal notes that might fit well with Swamp Thing's otherworldly setting, established in Alan Moore's comics. Even when firmly rooted on Earth, Swamp Thing travels into The Green, an ethereal realm where The Parliament of Trees can communicate telepathically (yeah, it's weird). Villeneuve offered acid-trippy aliens who could communicate nonverbally in Arrival, and that kind of approach might be just perfect here, in a movie about a man suddenly forced to be part of the natural world in a way he never imagined.
Maybe the most exciting thing about this new direction is that it could push Marvel to do the same, giving its properties a bit of room to breathe outside of the strictly controlled Avengers universe. Remember that time, in the comics, when Thor was a woman and Captain America was black? You've got two great-sounding movies right there.
How about a mumblecore Captain Marvel, directed by and starring Greta Gerwig? Or a genuinely horrific (and R-rated) take on Blade or Moon Knight by Jordan Peele or Karyn Kusama.
I'd wager Tank Girl's Rachel Talaley is still waiting for a call from Marvel about She-Hulk, too.
It's probably wise to hold onto a bit of healthy skepticism about that Joker movie, but DC is walking down a road that might finally rescue the superhero game from its increasingly bland, cookie-cutter funk. Here's hoping.
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